El Nido, Philippines
In retrospect, it probably wasn't the best idea to try to circumnavigate Lagen Island at twilight. Just minutes earlier, our two-seat kayak had been gliding over bright clusters of brain coral in the gin-clear waters of El Nido, in the northern reaches of Palawan, the remote westernmost province of the Philippines. Then the sun dipped below the horizon, and the violet sky yielded to a wildly splattered canopy of stars. Lagen's commanding gray-green cliffs faded into the gloam. Soon, my girlfriend and I were paddling alone in the dark.
Just two and a half hours earlier, she and I had boarded a 50-seat turboprop and departed the monochromatic sprawl of Manila for what is considered by many to be Asia's last truly unspoiled tropical paradise. How long it will remain that way is an open question. El Nido has won numerous "best beach" awards and served as a setting for The Bourne Identity, Survivor, and The Amazing Race, and more people make the trek here every year.
We'd dropped our bags at a bungalow set on stilts above the bay, which would be our home for the next few days. I noticed a kayak on the beach and simply had to get into that water. At least I was in good company: Jacques Cousteau visited the region in the early 1990s and called it the most beautiful place he'd ever explored. Five hundred years before that, after a poison arrow felled Ferdinand Magellan in the surf off Cebu, a few hundred miles to the east, his starving crew decamped to an island off Palawan and soon became convinced they had found paradise. For weeks they gorged on fish, fruit, and rice wine before continuing their around-the-world voyage.
We were just trying to make it back to the resort for dinner. But the amazing topography of El Nido kept luring us farther out. Lagen Island is only a few miles long, but the perimeter we paddled is much longer, thanks to the limestone cliff walls that undulate like curtains. If you've been to Halong Bay, Vietnam, or Phuket, Thailand, you've seen a similar landscape: El Nido's islands, along with the rest of Palawan, are part of the same tectonic plate, unlike most of the Philippines. But in contrast to Halong or Phuket, the Philippine islands are almost entirely unpopulated.
We had booked a stay at El Nido Resorts, a collection of four luxury hotels, each on its own protected island. The resort was founded in 1983 by a group of Japanese scuba divers entranced by the waters' more than 800 species of fish; until then, the region was basically untouristed. Now guests come to snorkel, dive, standup paddle, and kayak while in these primeval tropics. (We visited in early December, at the beginning of the dry season, which lasts through May, when underwater visibility can reach 90 feet.) Before darkness closed in on our kayak, we had observed swiftlets running missions out of their high cliffside nests and bats flinging themselves from the crevices. Dark clouds shifted underneath our boat, revealing themselves to be schools of fish.
Fortunately, the current in Bacuit Bay was mild. For more than two hours, we paddled toward cliff face after cliff face, hoping each turn would reveal the resort's stilted cottages, until we finally saw its lights. We dragged the kayak up to the darkened beach, sweaty and exhausted. A giant flying fox swooped lazily down, like a puppet on a string, as if to greet us.
Over the next few days, we did what one does on El Nido: island-hop aboard dual-outrigger boats, bouncing between snorkeling spots with other resort guests. On one such outing, we met a 40-something lawyer from San Francisco. It turned out he had been raised in Manila, and he offered some Filipino perspective. "They call Palawan 'the Last Frontier,' like Alaska in the U.S.," the man told us. "But when I was in school, it was off the map. I had moved away before I learned how beautiful it is here."
Leaping off the boat into the sea revealed again and again a psychedelic parade of creatures — barracuda on patrol, seahorse-like pipefish hiding in fields of antler coral, clouds of jackfish thousands deep moving like walls. Nudibranchs — thumb-size, sluglike creatures with bizarre neon paisley patterns — writhed in shards of light on the ocean floor. On the shore of one island I watched a five-foot-long monitor lizard retreating into a sea cave. When we retreated, it was to a bungalow facing a 750-yard stretch of white-coral sand, where the only sound to be heard, aside from a chorus of birds, was the breeze blowing through thatched roofs.
Paradise does not come cheap: Cottages at El Nido Resorts run $550 to $1,000 per night. If that's too much, or you don't want to sequester yourself at a hidden-away resort, you can stay in the village of El Nido, a kind of pop-up town that has emerged as more people make their way to Palawan. It's not much of a town: Until recently, the power shut off each day from 6 am to 2 pm. Tricycle-cabs, jeepneys, and stray dogs crowd Calle Hama, the narrow, dusty main strip that connects a scattering of wood-frame guesthouses, dive shops, and hole-in-the-wall grill joints serving charred, gingery stuffed squid, whole fish pulled from the bay, and kilawin, a raw seafood dish. Expect to be surrounded by backpackers studying for scuba exams, cans of San Miguel in hand.
We found a room at a place called Cadlao Resort, in a solar-paneled bungalow facing the bay, for about $185 per night. At twilight one evening, I chatted with the co-owner, Jean Brice Traon, a French national who first visited El Nido in the 1990s, before dropping out of his investment job to start the hotel with his wife and live here full-time. "I resisted as long as I could," he told me. Traon expressed concern about his home's newfound popularity. He pointed out that road improvements will soon drastically reduce the six-hour trek to El Nido from Palawan's capital, Puerto Princesa. "There will be more people, for sure," Traon said. "The problem is that the pie will stay the same size. It's a good pie, though."
Getting there: From Manila, take a one-hour ITIAIR flight to El Nido. El Nido Resorts is a 45-minute boat ride from there.